January 15, 2021
History of Día de los Muertos Graphic by Hannah London in Canva

History of Día de los Muertos

Believing the dead to be insulted by mourning, those who celebrate the Day of the Dead instead treat death as a natural part of life. Skulls, known as calacas and calaveras appear in sweets, masks and dolls as the lives of those who have passed are celebrated.

Día de los Muertos, known in English as the Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday that is celebrated by those with Mexican heritage in the United States and other Latin American nations. The festivities come in two parts, with the first day known as el Dia de los Inocentes, or “the day of the children,” and the second day carrying the name “the Day of the Dead.”

These mark the distinction between the day set aside for children who have passed, and the day for deceased adults. It’s believed that on Oct 31, the gates of heaven open up and the spirits of those who have passed on can spend the night with their families.

How did this holiday come to be? According to history.com and the Day of the Dead official website, the answer lies in the native Nahua traditions of pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America. The native tribes of the region had their own rituals and beliefs about the dead, such as the constant presence of death and the belief that life simply continued on in death. Death was not feared, but instead the lives of those who had passed on were celebrated. During a festival for the goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl, gifts of food and water were left at the graves of those who had died, and this practice continued for thousands of years.

In Europe, similar festivals for the dead had already been transformed by the Catholic Church into a holiday for Christian martyrs, known as All Saints Day and observed on Nov 1. The day after, Nov 2, was known as All Souls Day. According to history.com, in medieval Spain, people would bring bread, known as “spirit bread,” and wine to the graves of their deceased loved ones. The Spanish would also cover graves with flowers and light candles to guide the spirits of the dead back to earth.

When the Spanish came to the Americas, they colonized modern-day Mexico, took native traditions and combined them with their own. They changed the festival honoring a pagan goddess to a Christian holiday, moving the dates of the festivities to coincide with All Souls Day and bringing their own darker, macabre views of death into the celebrations. Because of this merge of cultures, the Day of the Dead became a unique holiday that acted as a bridge between native culture and European.

The official website for the holiday says that in the 19th century, a printer and cartoonist named José Guadalupe Posada drew the native goddess as a female skeleton called La Calavera Catrina, and this image became a widely recognizable icon of the holiday. As skulls had been a prominent feature of the native rituals, candy skulls were being made alongside people painting skulls on their faces in honor of La Catrina. 

Similarly, the gifts of food, water and flowers were offered on ofrendas, an altar inside the home of the family with photos and other items belonging to the deceased. Marigolds and papel picados, or perforated paper, decorate these ofrendas as well. Marigolds are meant to guide the dead with their color and smell, while papel picados represent air and are often strung up in the streets for decoration.

Originally, the holiday was limited to rural, indigenous areas of Mexico, but in the 1980s it began to spread to not just other parts of the country, but to places like the United States. Because of its growing visibility in pop culture, the Day of the Dead has become more widely celebrated in recent years. Many who are not a part of Mexican culture are now getting involved in the festivities, and as the population of Latinos in the United States grows, it’s likely the holiday will continue to impact American culture in the future.

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